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Violence in Texas Prisons: An Enduring Conflict

Texas Prisons

When we think of violence, we often think of a brute force action imposed on another human being, which is one accurate understanding of the word. Violence is also defined as an unlawful exercise of physical force. In the Texas prison system, brute force imposed on an incarcerated individual by another incarcerated person is strictly forbidden and punishable via the criminal justice system; yet violence imposed by a correctional officer onto an incarcerated person is not considered a criminal act. Many Texans have historically subscribed to “an eye for an eye” approach to criminal justice, and as a result, violence has become deeply rooted in the structure of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Although this is not the case in many other countries, in the United States, and certainly in Texas, our criminal justice system is designed to be punitive, not rehabilitative. In Texas, the word “justice” is synonymous with “punishment.”


The Enduring Nature of the Conflict 

The culture of violence in prison can be understood as an enduring conflict due to the following characteristics, which are described in more detail below.

  • Violence in TDCJ has deep roots;
  • It reflects identity issues;
  • It involves values;
  • It is embedded in structure of the organization;
  • It is systemic and complex;
  • It is rooted in distrust;
  • It involves fundamental issues of power.

TDCJ is, and always has been, an exceptionally hierarchical structure that takes a power down approach to conflict management versus a collaborative approach. Rather than seeking collaborative solutions to conflict, individuals are given orders. If the individual does not like or agree with the orders received, the attitude is “don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” From a management standpoint, correctional officers are not given the opportunity to participate in collaborative conflict management processes, and, according to employee comments on The Backgate website (www.thebackgate.org) forum—an unofficial TDCJ website created by and for TDCJ employees—grievances, whistle-blowing, complaints, etc. are all responded to with serious retaliation via upper management. From sexual harassment to excessive use of force on those who are incarcerated, the culture of TDCJ prohibits correctional officers from reporting policy violations of any kind. Fear of retaliation is considered by most to be a very real danger.

The culture of distrust, repression and fear manifests itself in violence toward those who are incarcerated. One correctional officer who asked to remain anonymous reported in an in-person interview, “We are taught to not see the inmates as human beings.” Another officer, who also asked to remain anonymous, explained that they are taught to perceive the inmates as animals—animals that will violate and threaten the staff at any moment. Because the incarcerated individuals are perceived as “less than human,” the organization does not provide opportunities to earn privileges. The system is designed to punish via the elimination of “privileges” such as access to commissary, access to recreation, access to the general population. Even more important and detrimental is the incarcerated person’s lack of access to basic human needs such as access to loved ones; access to human touch; access to sexual expression, etc. The system has no rewards for good behavior. The only reward, which is a default and not an actual reward, is that good behavior affords the incarcerated person to go unnoticed. To be “invisible” is the best possible situation for an individual incarcerated in Texas. The treatment of incarcerated individuals can be so inhumane and violent that it would be deemed illegal in the free world, but it is acceptable treatment in prison. For example, if a parent beat her child unconscious for refusing to come in from the yard and then pepper sprayed the already unconscious child, that parent would most likely face time in jail. Yet, correctional officers routinely beat and pepper spray unconscious people for similar behavior—i.e., refusing to come in from recreation. The “eye for an eye” nature of the Texas prison system is to commit legal actions of violence against those who are incarcerated for criminal behavior—violent and nonviolent offenses. The destructive use of power is prevalent throughout TDCJ whether it is management toward staff or staff toward the incarcerated population. This destructive use of power and culture of violence in correctional institutions throughout the United States has caused an extraordinarily high rate of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome amongst the correctional officer population (27 percent), which only leads to more violence when the person remains in the environment causing the stress and trauma.

The personality traits of the people involved in correctional work contribute to the enduring nature of the culture of violence. Although it is important to note that not all correctional officers fit this description, many correctional officers have an authoritarian personality. They often have, or develop as a result of their jobs, a bully mentality. Many of the correctional officers do not perceive their violence toward the incarcerated population as morally wrong. An anonymous comment from an article on the The Backgate asking correctional officers to provide suggestions for what could be improved in TDCJ in 2013 offers an example of the “bully mentality” so prevalent amongst the correctional officers. “I would like to see a way to sue an offender in civil court for monetary damages for criminal behaviour [sic] behind bars. I know it wouldn’t be much, but I would love it if their commissary money was awarded to a deserving officer-victim rather than to the coffers of the state of Texas. Offenders sue TDCJ all the time. They file false grievances all the time. Let’s make the offenders finally responsible [sic] for their own behavior. And suicide prevention? Let ’em hang!”  The personality traits and attitudes of violence of many of the correctional officers paired with a deeply rooted identity that they are the “good guys” protecting society from the “bad guys,” even though their behavior is often similar or worse than the incarcerated individuals’ they are employed to care for, perpetuate the enduring nature of this conflict that is deeply rooted in the structure and culture of the organization.


Evidence of Conflict Avoidance Within the Organization

TDCJ routinely denies that violence is a problem within its organization. In a recent interview with the public information officer and deputy executive’s director, both men made the official statement, “I am unaware of any assaults an officer has made against an offender.”



This is a remarkable claim considering the deputy executive director has been employed by the agency for 28 years. And yet, a recent open records request indicates that, in the past five years alone, TDCJ correctional officers have made 932 assaults on individuals incarcerated within the Texas prison system, eight of which were entirely unprovoked.

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Correctional officers and guards alike report incidences of retaliation against whistleblowers—whether the whistleblower is a correctional officer or an incarcerated person. Reporting policy violations, though there are official processes for doing so, is strictly prohibited within the culture of the organization. One guard commented on the article, Author/Psychologist Wants Your Take on TDCJ Issues on The Backgate website, “One TDCJ employee said she was threatened by an assistant warden to shut her mouth up and make no more complaints, that she will be fired and will be made useless, so that she will not be able to find job elsewhere in Texas if she refuses to stop complaining about the harassment she was facing.”  The forum for this website gives numerous examples of retaliation or fear of retaliation for policy violations, including one Sergeant’s vehicle having six machetes inside, a violation of the weapons policy, and not a single correctional officer felt safe reporting the violation for fear of retaliation.

Strategies for Staying With Conflict as It Relates to TDCJ’s Culture of Violence

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a noble mission statement: “To provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society, and assist victims of crime.”  In order to effectively align the organization with this statement and improve the culture of violence within the TDCJ, the organization must dedicate years, possibly decades, to fundamentally transform its culture. This type of conflict, which is so deeply woven into the fabric of the organization, will require a shift in the collective conscious of the organization. Because of the nature of the organization, violence will, to some degree, always be a part of the organization. Yet, a committed effort to the improvement of the organization and an honest effort in improving the lives of those the organization is tasked with serving, the organization can make significant improvement over time.

From the highest level of executive management to to the front lines of the correctional officers within the prison system, individuals within the organization will need to engage with one another, and ultimately with the incarcerated population, directly, respectfully and without avoidance about the core structural and identity issues of the organization. They will need assistance in communicating with one another in such a way that is productive and supportive and that does not vilify any one person or any one sector of the organization—both from an employee’s perspective and client’s-served perspective. Techniques and strategies for the effective and wise use of power will need to be implemented. In order to stay with this conflict, the organization will also need to identify the issues that are of most importance to “who” it is as an organization; who the people are that make up its employee and client base; what the core values are currently and what the organization strives for the core values to be; how it understands itself and how it understands the constituents it serves.

Understanding the Narrative

As a conflict intervener, it important to consider the narratives from which the conflict is being experienced. Culturally, TDCJ employees tend to identify with the narrative of the victim, villain and hero. Generally, the employees of the organization assume the “hero” narrative of the strong Texas law enforcement officers protecting the innocent citizens against the villainous criminal. Their identity is strongly enmeshed with this narrative. And yet, these very same “heroes” are also victims of the organization. While protecting the safety of the citizens of Texas, they are fiercely paranoid and fearful of the organization itself. This dichotomy creates a conflicting and complex narrative and seems to fuel the anger and resentment experienced by the correctional officers. In order to reframe the narrative, a conflict intervener will need to be particularly sensitive to the strong identity issues that can, on the surface, appear to contradict one another.

Understanding the narrative of the incarcerated population is also important. Generally, I suspect many people who are incarcerated also sees themselves as victims. Although there are a small, but not insignificant, percentage of individuals incarcerated who are indeed completely innocent of the crimes for which they have been charged (according to The Innocence Project, 3 to 5 percent), many people in prison were accomplices to crimes; are criminals by way of addiction; made terrible choices that were born out of terrible life-circumstances; made life-altering mistakes in the midst of a less serious crime; and, yes, some individuals are imprisoned for committing truly heinous crimes. However, once they are processed into the criminal justice system, no matter what their crime, they are systematically de-humanized, stripped of personal dignity, sexually assaulted (i.e., having genitals routinely searched), physically assaulted, routinely humiliated, hogged-tied, wrapped in chains, forced to work without pay for for-profit organizations, malnourished and the list of human rights violations goes on. And so, although they may very well be criminals, the system makes victims of them. Their powerlessness against the mass incarceration machine can be enraging and, without proper coping skills, can lead to violent individuals becoming more violent and nonviolent individuals becoming violent.

Once the incarcerated person re-enters society, and most incarcerated individuals do, the narrative often changes from “victim” to “avenger.” Racism or feelings of violence that they may not have had prior to incarceration, may have developed in the course of the incarceration as result of the treatment they received by the correctional officers. This is not to imply that the person will act out their vengeance, but the attitude of “avenger” often develops. One former inmate commented on The Backgate website, “If you don’t treat the inmates well you run the risk of being murdered. I used to be an inmate and when I got out I ran into a CO at a gas station by accident. The dude was so scared he was all like, ‘How you doing, man?’ And ‘nice to see you’ and all that. I cussed him out so bad his wife started crying. You people need to remember that most of us WILL get out sooner or later. So you had better treat us right — not special or ‘coddled’ (to use an expression made above), but treat us like humans. Your job is NOT to punish us! The judge / jury did that by sentencing us to jail. You mistreat us and you run the risk of running into us or our family.”

A correctional officer replied anonymously, “Go F yourself dude! If I was that CO I would have had you check my tires and clean my windshield.”  This correctional officer playing out two narratives: the “hero” (standing up for the wife) and the villain (continuing to victimize the former inmate).

Narratives are fluid. They shift and reformulate in response to the stage of conflict the person is or population of people are in. In order to intervene and facilitate this enduring conflict, the narratives of all parties involved—and all stages of conflict involved—should be considered and closely examined.

Exploring the Six Stages of Conflict

An intervention plan for an enduring conflict should include the exploration of the six stages of conflict. A conflict intervener will most likely be called into the conflict when it is already in a particular stage; however, upon close examination, the conflict will most likely demonstrate all stages in various degrees of manifestation.

Low impact conflict. With homicides in Texas prisons at a 10-year high, it is well past the time to explore how policies and procedures may be creating low-impact conflicts that may be contributing to violence in prisons. Though the conflict itself is clearly beyond “low impact,” TDCJ policies may exist that exacerbate the culture of violence. For example, correctional officers complain about the routine security procedures they must go through before the beginning and end of each shift. Similar to airport security, COs must remove their belts, shoes, hats, jackets, etc., walk through a metal detector and have their bodies patted down prior to entering the prison facility. This process is conducted at the shift change; therefore guards are queued out the door in the hot Texas weather, bitter cold weather and even pouring rain. By the time they actually get on the prison floor, many of them are already mad and extremely on edge. The process itself, though designed to reduce violence, may be very well—as reported by COs—be causing an increase in violence. In addition to being physically uncomfortable, correctional officers claim it makes them feel as though TDCJ perceives them criminals. And since TDCJ trains the COs to perceive the incarcerated individuals as animals, believing that they are perceived as “one of them” is extremely degrading.

Latent conflict. Fear of retaliation, low pay, short-staffing, reduced funds for inmate care, prison overcrowding and increase in violence in Texas prisons have created the “perfect storm.” Laura Frase commented in our class’ online forum, “When the disenfranchised try to alter the structure of an organization that is called revolution.” Within the culture of TDCJ both the COs and the incarcerated individuals perceive themselves, in one way or another, as the disenfranchised. The latent conflict may be a revolution waiting to happen.

Transient conflicts. There are conflicts within TDCJ that could and should be addressed as soon as possible. Imposing strict actions on upper management for retaliation against correctional officers who file grievances could drastically improve the overall morale correctional officers experience in the workplace. This boost in morale and demonstration from the executive team that abuses of power will not be tolerated could lift the COs’ confidence, and as result, affect how they treat the incarcerated population they interface with on a daily basis. How a person feels impacts how they behave. The resolution of transient conflicts in this enduring conflict could have a profound shift in the day-to-day interactions of the COs and inmates.

Representational conflict. Organizational attitudes and beliefs and “free world” attitudes and beliefs about crime and punishment should be explored in order to develop an understanding of how long-term patterns of thinking—from TDCJ executive members, correctional officers and those whom they incarcerate—might impact correctional officer/management relations as well as correctional officer/inmate relations. Understanding the perspective of the “other side” can have a profound impact on how a person treats members of the “other side.”

Stubborn conflict. Stubborn conflicts that may be born out of power struggles between higher ranking officers and lower ranking officers, officers and inmates, gang members and officers, gang members and members of rivaling gangs, and other stubborn conflicts that may be presented in the course of the intervention should all be explored.

Enduring conflict. Organizational structure and systems should be explored in order to develop an understanding of deep-rooted issues that may be related to the overall safety for correctional officers, staff and inmates.

Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “”Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” As conflict managers, we are tasked with helping people talk about the things that really matter, and those “things” are often the sources of deep organizational and societal pain. Enduring conflict, by its very name, endures. There may or may not ever be a resolution. But the process of staying with the conflict is essential to those impacted by it, and in its own way, the process improves the lives of those willing to commit to staying with conflict.


1) Anonymous Former TDCJ Correctional Officer, interview by Robyn Short, interview notes, December 2012

2) Nanon M. Williams, Still Surviving (GoodMedia Press, 2013)

3) Caterina G. Spinners, PhD, Michael D. Denhof, PhD, Julie A. Kellaway, PhD, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in United States Corrections Professionals: Prevalence and Impact on Health and Functioning  (Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, 2012)

4) Anonymous Comment,  Speaking Out, http://www.thebackgat.org, December 2012

5) Betty Gilmore, author “The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons”, interview with Jason Clark and Bryan Collier, interview notes, October 2012

6) Anonymous Comment,  Author/Psychologist Wants Your Take on TDCJ Issues, http://www.thebackgat.org, November 2012

7) www.tdcj.state.tx.us

8) Nanon W. Williams, TDCJ Inmate, interview by Robyn Short, interview notes, December 2012

9) Anonymous Comment,  Author/Psychologist Wants Your Take on TDCJ Issues, http://www.thebackgat.org (November 2012).

10) Mike Ward, Texas Prison Homicides at 10-Year High, http://www.statesman.com/news/news/texas-prison-homicides-at-10-year-high/nTKc7/, December 2,  2012

0db6a57Robyn Short has ghostwritten numerous books and is the founder and publisher of GoodMedia Press. She is a student of A Course in Miracles, a self-study system of spiritual psychotherapy. Robyn is a passionate believer in peace and social justice. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from Auburn University, a Masters of Liberal Arts from Southern Methodist University and a Masters in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution from Southern Methodist University. She is a certified mediator and author of Prayers for Peace and the children’s book Peace People, co-authored with Nanon Williams.  Robyn is available for book signings and to speak on topics of peace building and nonviolence, especially as it relates to these core issues. Contact Robyn by email.

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